Review: ‘Separation Anxiety’ offers alternative to typical ‘chick lit’

Karen Brichoux’s first novel, “Coffee and Kung Fu,” was heralded by Cosmopolitan and People magazines as a stellar summer beach read. Her book covers feature hunky guys in tight jeans and catchy slogans written in hot pink.

But don’t be fooled by her fluffy image. Brichoux has managed to break away from the standard “chick lit” novels to offer literature of more substance.

Perhaps her innovative ideas stem from the fact that Brichoux grew up in the Philippines as a daughter of American missionaries or that she has a Ph.D. in European history.

Far heavier than some of its contemporary counterparts, “Separation Anxiety” portrays a young woman whose problems can’t be solved by a Frappuccino and a makeover. Instead of concerning herself with clothes, men or her weight, the novel’s heroine deals with issues like sustaining her mental health and dealing with teenage pregnancy.

But while Brichoux’s new voice is one of her greatest assets, it can also be a liability. “Separation Anxiety” is being billed by its publisher (New American Library) as “a cutting-edge novel about a lifelong friendship between a girl and a guy in their twenties.” But despite the book’s catchphrase — “How do you break up when you’re just friends?” — the book isn’t really about a young babe attempting to ditch her best buddy. Rather, it is about an introspective young woman trying to discover her own identity.

Wichita (yes, she is named after our fair Kansas city) Gray is a 28-year-old woman struggling to forget about her dysfunctional family. Wichita’s mother, Maggie, is a wildly depressed woman whose self-hatred is manifested through lashing out at her young daughter. Her father, Brad, is cold and distant, playing only a minor role in the household.

Her best friend growing up is Jonah, who also deals with a broken home. The two find refuge in each other at a young age and quickly become inseparable. At 17, they leave their small Illinois town for good and head for school in Chicago. But when the book begins, 11 years after leaving her home, we find that Wichita still grapples with memories of her troubled childhood on a daily basis.

The book alternates between Wichita’s heartbreaking childhood memories and her current life as a grant writer for a Chicago museum. These constant transitions are triggered by anything from a cup of coffee to the sight of a cigar box. Everything, it seems, is a reminder of Wichita’s hurtful mother and Jonah’s healing friendship.

More than anything, Wichita wants to avoid becoming her mother. So when her teenage sister Geena shows up pregnant at her apartment, Wichita forces herself to act as the loving mother she never had.

Karen Brichoux, author of “Separation Anxiety,” will talk and sign books from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Raven Bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St. Brichoux’s first novel, “Coffee and Kung Fu,” came out last year.

The ending is predictable but not thoroughly satisfying, due mainly to a disconnect between what the author seems to want to say and what is written on the page. One of the main problems with “Separation Anxiety” is that Brichoux leaves some of her most potentially interesting material unexplored.

For instance, Wichita’s reasons for wanting to “break up” with Jonah are nebulous at best. Friends since they were 6, the two have depended on each other at every stage in life. Her fear of getting close to him seems irrational at best. “I’m scared to touch him because I’m afraid we’ll fuse together and I’ll never find out if I’m capable of breathing independently,” she says.

However, the obvious crux of the situation is that Wichita is blaming her friendship with Jonah for problems that actually stem from a miserable upbringing.

The character of Wichita’s father is also perplexing. Although he is physically present in the home, he has mentally abandoned the family, rarely interacting with his wife and daughters. He uses his job as an excuse to stay out of the house and has weekly affairs with a local woman. There are a few plot twists that explain Maggie’s behavior, but Brad’s motives remain a mystery, making him a confusing and unlikable character.

Though at times muddling, Brichoux deserves kudos for her valiant attempts at re-inventing the contrived genre known as “chick lit.” Once Brichoux fine tunes her writing, she will certainly be an author to watch.